Whose Spaces Are These Anyway? Political Advocacy in Public Schools

NBC News ran this headline yesterday: “A Texas teacher faces losing her job after fighting for gay pride symbols in schools.” The first paragraph reads “The school year at MacArthur High in Irving, Texas, began last fall with the administration scraping off rainbow stickers that had been posted on campus, prompting hundreds of students to walk out in protest.” The story goes on to tell of the plight of teachers pushing the LGBTQ agenda at MacArthur.

The controversy was triggered when teachers posted rainbow stickers outside their classrooms to show students that they were LGBTQ allies. In August, the administration told teachers that the stickers would have to come down. The reason? School officials told NBC News that decorations in classrooms, hallways, and offices must be “curriculum driven and neutral in viewpoint” to “ensure that all students feel safe regardless of background or identity.”

A straight pride flag from a march in Washington DC in September 2019

To get some perspective on the matter, imagine a heterosexual teacher posting a straight flag on their classroom door to signal to heterosexual students that the teacher was a straight ally. I know there are people who will object to the analogy. Straight pride, like white pride, is bigoted and hateful. “Heterosexuals have not suffered discrimination. Homosexuals have.” However, this is an irrelevant objection. Heterosexuals may suffer discrimination, but that does not entitle a teacher to hang a straight pride flag in a classroom.

Consider Black Lives Matter banners in classrooms. What would be the reaction to the Confederate battle flag hanging in a classroom? I disagree with both BLM and those who fly the Confederate flag. Except for school-related banners and the American and state flags, I wish to see neither banner nor flag in public school buildings. Even if I supported BLM, I would oppose the presentation of a BLM flag in a public school by administrators or teachers. Public schools are not appropriate venues for political advocacy.

I am aware of the problematic character of viewpoint neutrality, as symbols often bear multiple and deeper meanings. For example, symbols indicating the appropriate restrooms on the basis of sex not only guide students in a sex-segregated society, but also indicate the contemporary political controversy surrounding sex segregation. But, if we were to argue instead for viewpoint diversity, then we would have to accept straight pride flags in public school classrooms. A public institution cannot determine which views are acceptable and which are not. If you think removing gay pride stickers is controversial, just imagine teachers hanging straight pride flags in their classrooms.

Los Angeles high school classroom decorated with anti-police posters, Black Lives Matter, Pride, and Palestinian flags. Whose space is this? The teachers? Or the publics?

In January, Education Week ran the headline “Pride Flags and Black Lives Matter Signs in the Classroom: Supportive Symbols or Propaganda?” The article poses the question this way: “Should a teacher be allowed to place a Black Lives Matter sticker on their desk to let students know they oppose racism, or hang a Pride flag from their door to let their LGBTQ students know the classroom is a safe space? Or are those actions another way for teachers to politically influence and divide students?” This is the wrong way to pose the matter. The question should be: “Whose spaces are these? The teacher’s? Or the public’s?”

There is a presumption that, because progressive educators embrace a cause, that it is okay to adorn a classroom in flags and stickers or rehearse slogans with students advocating for that cause. It is often pitched as the teacher’s free speech rights—sometimes even as speech protected by academic freedom. As I noted in a previous blog (The LGBTQ Lobby Sues Florida), teachers do not have the right to impose their political view on students in public schools. Teachers are hired to deliver a curriculum. These spaces are the public’s and are designated for a specific purpose—and that purpose is not to propagandize children. Academic freedom is a right enjoyed by teachers in higher education. It is not a right available to k-12 teachers.

The principle here is actually quite simple and age-old. It is a fundamental element in liberal thought. Review the First Amendment and case law to clarify or refresh your memory. If a teacher wants to wear a cross around his neck, stretch a scarf over her head, or affix a fish patch to a briefcase, fine. That’s a personal right protected by the First Amendment. But teachers cannot hang crosses on the walls, asks students to wear scarfs, or post fish stickers on the windows of public school buildings. This violates the rights of students. The First Amendment protects individuals from compelled speech as much as it protects their right to make speech, and situating captive audiences in a sea of propaganda could possibly only be more compelling if the captives were explicitly punished for resisting ideology. Never underestimate the power of authority and peer pressure in forcing unwelcome opinions upon the impressionable.

K-12 classrooms should not be the domain of a teacher’s politics. But if it is to be that, then be prepared for the presentation of banners, flags, and slogans that you will find offensive and hateful. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, comrades. The free speech right does not depend on whether you think the messages is good or bad. The state can have no position on that in a free and open society. So come one, come all.

It’s either viewpoint neutrality, in which case you can complain to your heart’s content about what’s missing knowing that it doesn’t matter what you want because it’s not your space to do whatever with, or viewpoint diversity, in which case you will have to put up with a lot of things you don’t want your kid to see and hear and read because now it is declared a politicized space open to all opinions without consequences. That means a space where parents can enter and propagate their messages.

Why should it be that administrators, social workers, teachers, and the local Chambers of Commerce should be allowed to propagandize children in those spaces but not parents with contrary views? Are you ready for Confederate flags? Don’t Tread on Me? Straight Pride?

Here’s an idea. If you want your kid to be indoctrinated in religious or other ideologies, then find a private school and put them there. I am sure there are private schools that proudly display Christian, Palestinian, BLM, and Pride flags on their walls. Put your money where your politics are and keep your doctrines out of public schools. That strikes me as the best arrangement for everybody.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.